For someone who began his political campaign by crossing a line and has since kept crossing many lines with impunity why is anyone surprised at all that President-elect Donald Trump spoke to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen?
The man who has consistently informed the American people of his unpredictability cannot be blamed for being unpredictable. Whether his capricious approach to life is an asset or a liability in so far as it concerns his impending presidency is a judgment of time and whether he should have won notwithstanding that explicitly announced intention is now well past time.
After reading about his 10-minute phone conversation with Taiwan’s leader, the first by any American and Taiwanese leaders since 1979, a somewhat outlandish thought did cross my mind—Who next? The Dalai Lama? I quickly banished the thought.
It seems to be a strategy with Trump not to let the media and the world recover from their consternation/surprise/shock by regularly dosing them with something freshly intoxicating. Even before the weirdly effusive content of his call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had ceased being controversial, the president-elect sprang the Taiwanese call.
On the point about the Trump-Sharif call, where the former, according to the latter, described his vis-à-vis as someone who is “a terrific guy” with a “very good reputation” doing “amazing work” in an “amazing” country full of “fantastic people”, people are still processing it. According to the Pakistani side, Trump also said he was “willing to play any role you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.”
Knowing the way the Pakistani mind works, I wouldn’t be surprised if that call was recorded by them just in case its claims of the content were seriously challenged. On its part the Trump team sought to play down the gushing tone of the call saying the two had a “productive conversation about how the United States and Pakistan will have a strong working relationship in the future. President-elect Trump also noted that he is looking forward to a lasting relationship with Prime Minister Sharif.”
When I first read the content of his call with Sharif as claimed by Islamabad, I immediately thought of Hindus for Trump, a group of Indian Americans one of whose primary reasons for being so sanguine about Trump was that he would cut Pakistan down to size. Well, if the man is willing to play any role that Pakistan wants him to play to solve all outstanding problems, at the very least it should tell his Indian American supporters that his capriciousness is real. Of course, by the sheer logic of capriciousness, he could well turn on that very dime all over again. So it is neither here nor there.
Coming back to Taiwan, which China regards as one of its breakaway provinces like it did Tibet and annexed it in 1950, I concur with the president-elect on one limited point. After the expected controversy over his call with the Taiwanese leader, he tweeted “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” That is an unexceptionable point quite in keeping with his approach of crossing any and all lines. Of course, when you cross any and all lines, it is statistically inevitable that you would cross some of them for the right reasons.
Expectedly, Beijing is unhappy about the call and has reportedly let the Obama administration know as much. Not that, that is going to make any material difference when President Barack Obama is practically out of the White House.
The call can potentially damage US-China relations but then both sides know the importance of not stepping on each other’s corns too much. Analysts are trying to decipher whether the Trump-Tsai call signals a dramatic shift in America’s China policy under President Trump, threatening to upend decades of relative stability. I am not entirely sure much deep analysis goes into the way the president-elect conducts these phone conversations. They could well be lip-deep insincerities that a businessman long accustomed to mouthing them to sell uses.
Let’s accept for the sake of argument that Trump was well aware of how unfavorably the call would be viewed in Beijing but did it anyway. If that is the case, it is only in keeping with his express intention of routinely crossing lines. For someone for whom the very first straw should have been last straw when he announced his campaign calling an entire group of people rapists and murderers, let’s not pretend that the Taiwan call is shocking. Its consequence, if any at all, will be known over a period of time. Until then, let’s wait and see which new line he is getting ready to cross.